Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Primary Question

The GT has a good editorial today supporting the shift to a top-two open primary:

Oregon’s Measure 65 essentially would change the way candidates advance to the general election for most partisan offices. Here’s how it would work: All candidates, regardless of party designation, would run in a single primary. Only the two top vote-getters would advance to the general election. Both the primary — and general-election ballots — would contain the candidates’ party registrations. But such designations would not necessarily mean that a candidate had the blessing of the party. The ballots also would list which party endorsements candidates have collected.

I've always been uneasily ambivalent towards this move, largely because I never thought it addressed the actual problem, which is that there are only two major political parties (or that there are political parties at all, ha-ha). As well, if we take the existence of political parties as a given, then open primaries are bad, because they don't allow parties to choose their own nominee.... sort of. I suppose a party can still endorse; this just pries open the voting system, and, in a way, creates a two-round election, which is interesting (and very European, natch).

But that's all a digression. My actual question is this: Why not make it a top-three primary?

Here's why I ask: In a top-two system, one of a few things are going to happen:

1) It's going to be two people from the same party, in which case I predict voters from the other party will either stay home, lowering turnout, or bite their tongue and vote for the person who panders to them the most. From the candidates' point of view, this is good, because it means a Republican who is facing a Republican in the general election can eake out a position just to the left of their oppoonent and then rake in the Dem votes, and vice versa. Once elected, that person can then revert to form, thus effectively disenfranchising all those voters who voted for the lesser of two evils. This is not good.

2) It's going to be a Republican vs. a Democrat. This will be the most common if the top-two system ever gets widely implemented. Not much will change here.

3) A minor party candidate will somehow sneak in, probably because of two or more major-party candidates vying for one of the top spots and splitting the votes. This could make the general election very interesting, as some of those who would normally vote for, say, the Dem, would be tempted to vote for the Green, if there is no Dem. The same could be suggested of Republicans and Libertarians or Constitutionalists. This is a good thing for minor-party candidates.

I think it's fair to say that a top-two primary offers a much greater chance of interesting races, and a somewhat bigger chance of the inclusion of one or more third-party candidates.

However, what would happen in a top-three primary? I think it would even more significantly increase the odds of a minor-party candidate getting into the general election, and the very nature of a "we already had one election and Candidate X (from a minor party) was a top-three finisher" would raise the presence and stature of minor parties in general. It would also promote multiple major-party candidates, which splits votes, again making it more likely that a minor-party candidate would advance to the general election.

Let's face it: A two-party system does not do a good job representing everyone. There are far more than two points of view out there, especially when you throw in the added complexity of platforms (for example, who should I support if I'm a free-market social liberal?). Adding more parties to the mix is a good thing, and a top-three primary is a way to do that. Therefore, I'd call for a top-three open primary system.

So why is a top-three primary not an option? Not having researched this, I don't really know, but I have two guesses: 1) Americans think in terms of a two-candidate election. Lots of history and social conditioning there. That's a pretty sad reason ("we do it this way because we've always done it this way"), but I think it's relatively likely. 2) The existing major parties, disliking but unable to prevent the top-two primary, at least managed to limit them to top-two, knowing that it offers the best chance to continue a D-R matchup.

What do you all think?


Michael Faris said...

My guess? A three-candidate election still leaves open the possibility for a plurality instead of a majority. Someone wins with 35% of the vote to 33% and 32%, say. Now, though people often get elected with 40-45% of the vote, 35% seems mighty low. My guess is it's to prevent the necessity for another run-off or a contended election.

My question is: why not do what the Green Party has been proposing for years, where we rank candidates and the rankings affect their possibilities of winning. (I forget what this type of ballot is called, and also I don't know if the Green Party is still pushing for this.)

Dennis said...


On the merits, I would go with Instant Runoff Voting as well (which is what I think you are referencing).

In terms of public policy and public opinion (which are clearly not decided on the merits).... baby steps.

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